Thursday, September 26, 2019

Machiavelli and The Renaissance

It is a liberal view that the Renaissance means the rebirth of something old, but several historians describe it as a beginning of something new that we now see as “modernity.” If the latter view of the Renaissance is accepted, then Machiavelli stands out as the world’s first modern man who as a matter of principle advocates innovation in politics and culture and promotes the idea of new institutions which will keep society stable in times of rapid transformations.

In Italy, the Renaissance was being led by scholars like Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati, Leonardo Bruni, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and others. They are seen as humanists because their work was focused on issues related to human life, or the humanities, and not physics, metaphysics, and theology.

Although regarded as the first modern man, Machiavelli was disenchanted by the Renaissance. He was contemptuous of the scholarship, art, and politics of his period. He does not even mention the prominent humanist scholars in the Discourses on Livy. The only modern scholars that mentions are Dante, Lorenzo de' Medici, and Flavio Biondo—while he mentions 19 ancient scholars. He begins the Discourses by criticizing those who ignore the “ancient values” in politics, because they think that they can honor antiquity by buying fragments of ancient statues for their homes.

His antagonism with the Renaissance is palpable in his heavy criticism of Cicero, who was regarded as a towering figure by the humanists. Cicero’s idea of ideal man had enthused the humanists, but Machiavelli notes that Cicero corrupted the Roman Republic by importing Greek philosophy. He says that Greek Philosophy made the Roman Republic weak and decadent. He is sympathetic to Cato’s cause of ridding Rome of the influence of Greek philosophy.

Machiavelli believed that the ancients were superior than the moderns and in the Discourses he notes that to devise a good political system we must relearn ancient virtues. The ancients that he admires are not the Greeks of the Classical Period (when the polis was the model of an ideal state), but the Roman Republic.

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